Musonius Rufus — Lectures V & VI: On theory, practice, and training

[image: funerary relief (circa 500 BC) depicting wrestlers, Wikipedia; this is essay #292 in the Figs in Winter series]

One day Musonius Rufus, the first century Stoic who taught Epictetus, was having a conversation with his students, and someone asked whether he thought philosophical theory or practice was more effective, if one’s goal is to become a better person. He said:

Suppose that there are two physicians, one able to discourse very brilliantly about the art of medicine but having no experience in taking care of the sick, and the other quite incapable of speaking but experienced in treating his patients according to correct medical theory. Which one would you choose to attend you if you were ill? (V)

“Well, then,” said Musonius, “that being the case, in the matter of temperance and self-control, is it not much better to be self-controlled and temperate in all one’s actions than to be able to say what one ought to do?” (V)

In his sixth lecture Musonius returns to the topic of theory and practice. He argues that doctors and musicians are guided by an understanding of theory, but that their knowledge becomes valuable only when accompanied by a long practice. And so:

How, indeed, could a person immediately become temperate if he only knew that one must not be overcome by pleasures, but was quite unpracticed in withstanding pleasures? (VI)

Musonius goes so far as to say that the practice of philosophy is more difficult than any other, including that of medicine. Why? Because when we begin to study medicine (or music, or whatever) we have few, if any, preconceived ideas about the subject matter, and so our minds are more open to learning. But in the case of philosophy, we grow up in a society that pushes us into all sorts of irrational or unvirtuous behaviors. So by the time we make the conscious choice of becoming “philosophers,” meaning to practice the art of living, we have a lot of damage to undo first.

How, exactly, do we train ourselves for the philosophical life? Here Musonius makes a suggestion that may surprise us moderns, but that was encapsulated in the ancient Latin motto: mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a health body). Musonius reminds us that body and mind are tightly connected, and that one affects the other. As philosophers, we need to take care of our body because the practice of virtue may be taxing and it is therefore facilitated by a healthy body. While he recognizes that some training is specifically tailored to the body and some to the mind, there are also exercises that affect both simultaneously:

We use the training common to both [body and mind] when we discipline ourselves to cold, heat, thirst, hunger, meager rations, hard beds, avoidance of pleasures, and patience under suffering. For by these things and others like them the body is strengthened and becomes capable of enduring hardship, sturdy and ready for any task; the soul too is strengthened since it is trained for courage by patience under hardship and for self-control by abstinence from pleasures. (VI)

As a reminder, in Stoicism the only things that are truly good or evil are, respectively, our own good or bad judgments, which Epictetus reminds us are entirely under our control. The sort of things people normally think of as good or evil are only preferred or dispreferred, meaning that we can certainly pursue or avoid them, so long as we do not do so at the expense of our character integrity. Here, then, is the common problem:

We dread death as the most extreme misfortune; we cling to life as the greatest blessing, and when we give away money we grieve as if we were injured, but upon receiving it we rejoice as if a benefit had been conferred. (VI)

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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